South Carolina vs. Texas A&M

Maik Kotsar

Frank Martin knew that to be successful this season, he needed a big year from Maik Kotsar, so he challenged his senior big man.

Martin needed a different player than he what he saw from the 6-11 forward last season.

“I told him last year when the season ended, I can’t do this for another year with you. I can’t keep treating you like a freshman,” Martin said. “You have to believe in yourself. Give him credit.”

RELATED: Aggressive Gamecocks take down Texas A&M

Kotsar accepted the challenge and has emerged as not only one of South Carolina’s best players, but one of the best in the SEC. In fact, Martin believes Kotsar might be the best defensive player in the league.

“Our team defensive MVP is Maik Kotsar,” Martin said Monday. “He leads us in steals, leads us in blocks and defends every ball screen. They try to drive him when we switch and they can’t. I think he’s the defensive MVP in this league.”

Kotsar is South Carolina’s third leading scorer with 10 points per game and leads the Gamecocks in rebounds (6.5), blocks (25) and steals (37). He is 10th in the SEC in blocks and tied for fifth with 1.6 steals per game.

He has also helped the Gamecocks (14-9, 6-4 in the SEC) rank 16th nationally in defensive field goal percentage, holding opponents to 44.3 percent. They are second in the SEC behind Kentucky.

A big part of that is the play of a more aggressive Kotsar.

“He is really good defensively,” Martin said. “It’s not small ball that wins, it’s who can defend on the perimeter that wins. … Kotsar can really defend on the perimeter.”

Kotsar has played particularly well in the last two weeks as South Carolina has won three of its last four SEC games to put itself in position to make a run at a spot in the NCAA Tournament. He had 10 points and nine rebounds in a win at Arkansas, followed by 21 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks against Missouri. He had one of his best games in the road loss at Ole Miss with 19 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and three steals. In Saturday’s win over Texas A&M, he added 10 points, three rebounds and four steals.

He will have to come up big Wednesday night at Georgia. The Bulldogs are fourth in the SEC in scoring, averaging 76.8 points per game, and feature one of the league’s most dynamic players in Anthony Edwards, who is second in the league with 19.7 points per game.

“Defensively, we have to be very solid,” Martin said. “… There are some things we have to do slightly differently defensively because of the way they play. We have to make adjustments, and we will. … Maik being so interchangeable makes those adjustments easier.”

Kotsar is playing with much more confidence this season, and Martin says if he continues to progress he has a bright future ahead of him.

“If he continues to play the way he is playing, he’s an NBA guy,” he said. “He’s an NBA guy because of his size, his ability to defend, his ability to dribble, his ability to pass, and now he is making 15- to 17-foot shots. If he can make a 15- to 17-foot shots, he will eventually be a 3-point shooter.”

Martin gives Kotsar credit for changing his outlook and mindset, which allowed him to be more aggressive and confident on the court.

“That has to come from within. They have to believe in themselves, and if they believe in themselves and they are at peace with who they are, then they are open to growing and you can teach them and help them and then their confidence continues to sprout. I think that is what’s happening to him right now,” he said. “He’s in a really good place internally with himself. … He believes in himself.”

Martin says point guard Jermaine Couisnard, who has taken over the team and is averaging 12 points per game, has helped Kotsar play with more confidence.

“Jermaine has been really good for him,” Martin said. “Jermaine is really good at uplifting a teammate … and he’s been really good for Maik. The conversations Jermaine has with Maik during timeouts, as a coach, you’re like, ‘that’s pretty good.’ … Maik’s at peace with himself.”